Behind the Scenes of Second Serve

Hello folks! Yes, I know some of you might be getting angsty about how there have been no Personal Finance or Personal Growth or a book post per se this month. The fact is that even while this is a book post, it is on very different lines. Hopefully, it will also serve as a clarification why I have been somewhat distracted in the last few weeks.

News from my end is that I am finally ready with my very first novel, Second Serve. It is up for pre-release on the Kindle store and the paperback is available in India. It is due for release this Sunday, that is 18th October. As you can imagine, I am quite anxious to say the least. For years now, my go-to strategy for straightening out a swirling mind has been to write it out. The difference today though is that this writing is happening on my corner of the Internet aka Elementum Money. I thought of writing a bit about the journey Second Serve has had in the hope of aspiring other people who have often dreamt but not just gone ahead and done it.

What is Second Serve all about?

While I have been brandishing about the long description which will make it’s way here also soon, if I was to put it succinctly it combines the thrill of sports with the magic of romance.

In 2013, on a spark of inspiration I had started a novel but it pretty much fell off after a few chapters. Cut to 2018 and I witnessed a memorable Wimbledon final match. At the end, a player admitted to have had a torrid 18 months of working towards a comeback. The googler in me lit up and I sponged up as much as I could, realising it had the makings for a very good, fleshed-out story especially if I could transport it to the Indian context.

On a cab ride, I bounced it off my brother-in-law (husband’s brother) giving him a gist of this and the abandoned half-written novel. He told me to just go ahead and run with it, saying I could do justice to the complexities that this plot invited.

They say one moment can change your life. But what if one person had that impact in your life, again and again?

Abhimanyu Walia, India’s first tennis Grand Slam champion is at a crossroads in his life. Not only has his wife Ragini walked out on him. He is also staring at a potentially career-ending knee surgery. Lost and bereft, he is beginning to realise that he needs both back in his life – Ragini and tennis. And he can’t have one without the other.

Ragini Malhotra is in a dilemma about whether to stay away from the media hype and drama surrounding the career threatening knee surgery for her estranged husband and global tennis superstar Abhimanyu Walia. Or should she be by his bedside, for the sake of their friendship? Having walked out on her marriage and her career as his manager one year back, she has just started rebuilding her life sans Abhimanyu when this turmoil has her on tenterhooks.

Second Serve weaves back and forth between the past —sixteen years back when Ragini and Abhimanyu first met – and the present. When Abhimanyu starts out with a fault, he must work his way through the tangled knots of his marriage and tennis career in his Second Serve.

The writing process

In my understanding, I work better if I write in little, consistent spurts rather than sitting for hours at end. That is what I did with this book. I stopped taking my lunch hour with colleagues, choosing to work on the book. In my bullet journal, one thing to track became whether I wrote a thousand words for “tennis manuscript” which was the working title. That kept me solidly on track.

As for the characters, as much as possible, I tried to list the main ones all in a place before I started, along with their core traits. For the protagonists, Ragini and Abhimanyu, I tried to come up with detailed questionnaires (easily available online) so that I might cover as many details as possible. While writing, I could almost watch the scenes happening in my head as my fingers worked on the keys.

Tennis is the backbone of this book and there is a LOT of on-court action. Although I have watched the sport since I was a kid, a lot of googling and Youtube videos went into this. Books like Rafael Nadal’s autobiography Rafa and Andre Aggassi’s Open have also fed a lot into the styling of Abhimanyu Walia. The match action derived quite a bit from match footages on Youtube. For some reason, I have always loved the post-match interviews and presentation ceremonies, which again have found their way to the book.

Another surprising resource was Kelsey o’Anderson’s (wife of South African tennis player Kevin Anderson) blog. As I tried to hunt for it now, I realised it was far more difficult to find and I probably got lucky that time. But those posts fired so many ideas and gave me a good feel for the pressures and situations that could be included (Hint: Necker Island).

 You got a manuscript. Now What?

Whenever I have thought of writing a book, for me the mountain has always seemed to be just that – the writing. But how wrong was I. Once 95% of the manuscript was ready and I was happy with it, I started sending it out to publishers and agents. Some were courteous to reject right off the bat. Some were happy to remain incommunicado.

What was disheartening was also how many friends I gave the manuscript to, some especially at their request but none of them really made an effort to read it. I was almost going to throw in the towel.

Then my husband’s best friend jumped in. I first sent her the synopsis and the first 3-chapters, the standard thing I was sending for my publisher requests. On a Monday afternoon, she emailed me back:

This is phenomenal. I read well into the day at work. I am guessing I am feeling exactly how you want the reader to feel about Abhimanyu. 

More! 

She read the entire book and her passion for the characters sometimes outdid mine. She has been a valuable ally the whole journey thereafter.

I was almost ready for the release when I found another surprising channel of support. I am blessed with a large alumni group, with a smaller off shoot book club. We try to meet once a month (atleast in pre-covid times) and share our love of books. Although she herself can be confused for a teenager, she has a teenage son who is in the tennis circuit. I was home in Delhi when I almost fainted of joy looking at her Whatsapp message:

A fun easy breezy read! Entertainer… and oh how we all wish for an Indian tennis singles grand slam winner

Her stamp of authenticity on the tennis parts just made me realise that Second Serve deserves it’s chance to have an audience.

Post production thereon

While I wrote the book in Microsoft Word, that’s not how it was going to get published. The fear of not giving a decent attempt a good enough platform always nagged me. Then there was a meltdown when my husband shook me telling me to just let it out in the world.

The lockdown and the self publishing journey became friends with mutual benefits. The lockdown meant I did not have the excuse of time scarcity to hide behind. While working on the book helped me somewhat to not lose my sanity (although the jury is out on that).

Gradually, I figured out each step and worked towards it. I designed some cover options on Canva and after some inputs zeroed in on this one. I figured Reedsy had a fantastic free book formatting platform which converted Second Serve to a real epub and print-ready PDF. Another ally I was fortunate to have was an ex-boss from my marketing days. She patiently took a look and gave inputs into everything that I came up with.

Kindle Direct Publishing came to the rescue with self-publishing the Kindle version. Although at the last minute I realised that they do not aid with paperback in India for which I then rushed in with the manuscript to Notion Press. Happily enough, the paperback is now available on Amazon India thanks to them.

My five takeaways from the experience

If you have read a few posts on the blog, then you would know I am a sucker for bullet points. This post is no different and few things have helped me here:

1. Know what works for you in writing

For me, having my brain be a hitler to my creative side forcing it to put in work is the only way it works. Often I am not sure of where the story is headed. As I force myself to sit and write a daily quota, sometimes it meanders it’s way to making sense. I understood this more as I wrote for Elementum Money where I started following a schedule pretty religiously. But it may not work for everyone. Hence, figure what gives your writing it’s rhythm.

2. Write something you would enjoy reading

The reason I chose to write about tennis and romance is that those are two things I know I enjoy. As I wrote, it was fun for me to create and unfold the journey for myself as well. Finally even as I read the book in the last edit I knew I would have liked it as a reader. In some ways, that’s the thought I am holding on to while scrambling with the nerves before the release.

3. Talk about it

As you write, tell atleast your close circle that you are writing a book. Mostly people are positive and highly encouraging. Also, often the most surprising connections and help come through as you talk about it. It could be someone to help with thrashing out the plot. It could be someone who could help with a publisher or an agent.

4. Have a support system

Writing can be a lonely pursuit. But, it’s all the tougher when it’s followed by enough industry experts telling you it’s not worth it. You need people to tell you to be proud of your work, to tell you that it will be fine and to keep nudging you to move forward. I remember calling a friend and laughing to her about how I got another rejection. Having that first port of call that boosts you and your mood is important to get something out in uncharted territory for the first time.

5. Beyond a point, accept

This in some ways is a point meant as a reminder for me as well. As the tennis son friend told me a few days back, you have done the work. Now just let it fly. Another quote I like to hold on to – Nobody can stop a good story whose time has come. After the hard work, take some time to revel in just having it out there.

Do join Abhimanyu and Ragini in their journey with Second Serve. While the paperback is available only in India, the Kindle version is available in most English-speaking markets like India, United States and United Kingdom. Read, share and let me know what you made of it. Also, wish me luck in this endeavour which has taken all possible self-motivation and courage to get towards the finish line.

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